Recently one of my favorite blogs posted a case study in Church Discipline and the question was asked: What would you do? The case study involved a woman who had committed adultery and confessed her indiscretion to her friend. The friend told her she needed to repent. When the adulteress rejected the friend’s advice (because she finally felt happy and valued) the friend brought in a couple other church members to confront the sinner. Again the advice to repent was rejected. Then the pastor was told. (He bowed out by telling the friend he would pray about it and get back to her, which he never did). To make a long story short the woman’s unbelieving husband found out about the adultery and left his wife and children, taking the family car. Sunday came around and the adulteress called her friend requesting a ride to church. What should the friend do?
Frankly I was surprised by how many commenters insisted the friend should shun the adulteress, not give her a ride, not fellowship with her in any way, continue to tell her she should repent, and refuse to have anything to do with her until she did. Even appealing to sympathy for the adulteress’ children did little to soften the attitudes of those who advocated shunning. One individual allowed that perhaps the children should be offered a ride but not their mother. Another commenter went so far as to say the children “would get over it” and come to see the truth once they were adults.
I am not particularly interested in rehashing what the friend or the Church should do in this or a similar situation. If you want to participate in that discussion check out the Pen and Parchment blog. I am more interested in discussing what the impact of Church discipline is on the lives of individuals and how fear factors in to the whole issue of sin, repentance, and forgiveness.
It came to my attention a couple days ago that a family within my own fellowship has quit coming to church because they feel ashamed and afraid. Their oldest daughter is pregnant and she is not married. Approximately a year ago another family faced a similar situation but continued to attend our fellowship. Knowing the attitude which prevailed toward the family last year (and still lingers today) I understand and have sympathy toward this most recent family. At the same time I am saddened that the Church is such an unsafe place in the eyes of so many, believers and non-believers alike.
So, what impact does discipline, such as shunning, have on the Church? As pointed out by many on the original blog the Biblical purpose of such discipline is to both warn others (1 Timothy 5:20) and restore the sinner (Galatians 6:1). In Jesus’ day to be separated from your faith community had a devastating effect. The outside culture would rarely accept you even if you would want it to and if it did you were generally at the bottom of the social and economic heap. Money and status are not as directly connected to ones religious group today, at least not in the United States.
Because ones position and security are not impacted to the same degree they were, shunning is not as effective a warning tool as it once was. The mobility of our society also diminishes the effect of shunning. Being rejected by ones faith community no longer means you can not have a faith community. Today one simply hops next door. In fact, shepherds are so used to seeing sheep wander over from other fields they rarely even ask the sheep what precipitated the move.
If deterrent disciplines, such as overt shunning, are as ineffective as they appear to be, what would cause someone, like the family I mentioned earlier, to “self-shun”, so to speak? I could be wrong, I certainly have been before, but I believe problems like gossip, self-righteousness, and pride ought to be our focus. The family above feels afraid and ashamed. Why? Perhaps they have been around the block enough times to know what the “Christian” attitudes toward their family might be. Perhaps they have even held some of these attitudes toward other families. During college I worked in a Christian book store. Two of my fellow workers were old enough to be my mother and had been friends for a very long time. One day while I was working I overheard one of these ladies say to the other that she wished her daughter was as good as the other woman’s daughter. I will never forget the response of the other woman. After assuring her friend that she was in deed a good mother, this woman said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Sadly, the “Christian” attitudes most of us show one another are rarely as merciful as the attitude this woman showed her friend.
Rather than running away from the Church, the family in my fellowship ought to be seeking comfort and support in the Church. Their shame and fear evidences the fact that the Body too often response like cancer to pain and suffering, turning on itself and devouring what little good still exists. I do not know a quick way to rid the Church of the systemic disease of self-righteousness, unforgiveness, and pride. But I do know that being kind, merciful, and humble toward one person or one family is a step in the right direction.
I think it’s time to make a baby quilt and then pay a visit to some people I know.